Mary MacSwiney, Irish politician and educationalist, is born in London on March 27, 1872, to an Irish father and English mother. In 1927 she becomes leader of Sinn Féin when Éamon de Valera resigns from the presidency of the party.
MacSwiney returns to Ireland with her family at the age of six and is educated at St. Angela’s School in Cork. At the age of twenty, she obtains a teaching post at a private school in England and studies for a Teaching Diploma at the University of Cambridge, which is normally reserved for men.
Influenced by her younger brother Terence MacSwiney‘s staunch Irish republicanism, MacSwiney joins the Gaelic League and Inghinidhe na hÉireann. She is a founder member of Cumann na mBan when it is formed in 1914 in Cork and becomes a National Vice-President of the organisation. She leads the denunciation of British rule at the Convention of November 1914. In 1916 she is arrested and imprisoned following the Easter Rising and is also dismissed from her teaching position due to her republican activities. Several months later, upon her release from prison, she and her sister Annie re-found Scoil Íte, a sister school to Patrick Pearse‘s St. Enda’s School, and she remains involved with the school for the rest of her life.
MacSwiney supports the Irish War of Independence in 1919–21. After the death of her brother Terence in October 1920 on hunger strike during the height of the war, she is elected for Sinn Féin to the Cork Borough constituency in 1921. She gives evidence in Washington, D.C., before the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland. For nine months she and Terence’s widow, Muriel, tour the United States lecturing and giving interviews.
MacSwiney is active in her friendship with Harry Boland and de Valera, whom she cultivates assiduously. In October 1921, a second delegation is to be sent to London which for the first time includes Michael Collins. MacSwiney, who remains implacably opposed, pleads with de Valera to be allowed to go. She is refused as de Valera thinks her to be “too extreme.” She strongly opposes the Anglo-Irish Treaty, debating during December 1921 to January 1922 to resume the war. On December 21 she speaks for three hours, criticising the agreement from all angles.
MacSwiney is arrested at Nell Ryan’s home, a safe house, at 40 Herbert Park, Ballsbridge, on November 4, 1922, when it is raided by Free State soldiers. She is interned at Mountjoy Gaol and immediately goes on hunger strike. Cumann na mBan organizes vigils outside the prison in protest of Mary’s and the others internment. The Women’s Prisoner’s Defence League is formed in August 1922 to protect their rights. During the hunger strike she refuses doctor’s visits and is resigned to her death. Her condition is critical and she is given the Last Rites by a Catholic priest. The Government is not prepared to allow strikers die so she is released.
En route to Liam Lynch‘s funeral, MacSwiney is again arrested when the car in which she is riding is stopped and she is recognised. She is taken with Kate O’Callaghan to Kilmainham Gaol. Fearless of death, she begins another protest. They continued to be interned without charge, but it is explained she is distributing anti-government propaganda. After nineteen days of hunger strike she is due to be released on April 30, 1923. The Governor allows O’Callaghan to go but stays a decision on MacSwiney. Most of the women on hunger strike are sent to the North Dublin Union.
In March 1926 the party holds its Ard Fheis. MacSwiney and Father Michael O’Flanagan lead the section from which Éamon de Valera and Fianna Fáil break away. De Valera has come to believe that abstentionism is not a workable tactic and now sees the need to become the elected government of the Dáil. The conference instructs a joint committee of representatives from the two sections to arrange a basis for co-operation. That day, it issues a statement declaring “the division within our ranks is a division of Republicans.” The next day, de Valera’s motion to accept the Free State Constitution, contingent upon the abolition of the Oath of Allegiance, narrowly fails by a vote of 223 to 218. However, de Valera takes the great majority of Sinn Féin support with him when he founds Fianna Fáil.
MacSwiney continues to maintain a republican position until her death. By then she is vice-president of Sinn Féin and Cumann na mBan but loses her seat at the June 1927 general election. When lack of funds prevent Sinn Féin contesting the second election called that year, MacSwiney declares “no true Irish citizen can vote for any of the other parties.”
Mary MacSwiney dies at her home in Cork on March 8, 1942. Her stance, both before and after the Treaty, may be summed up by her statement, “A rebel is one who opposes lawfully constituted authority and that I have never done.”